Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Wednesday Lunchtime D&D Call to Arms

In these literal and figurative dark times, what we need is the light of Our Lady of Dungeons & Dragons to shine forth upon us. In that vein, I'd like to run a campaign of D&D online, Wednesday lunchtimes, 12-2pm UK time. It will be a weekly game, probably starting next week (the 20th) or, failing that, the week after. 

I would like to run a megadungeon inside a giant tree, which I am currently mapping and keying. 

If you are interested, contact me at noismsgames AT protonmail.com. You get special priority if you were in my Cruth Lowlands game from days of yore (you know who you are; I've lost everybody's email addresses). 

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Megadungeons on A1 Scrolls

Yesterday, I discovered that my stationery cupboard at work has a huge stash of A1 notepads. Of course, work stationery exists only to be pilfered, so I will help myself to one sooner or later, but a great idea (great to me, at any rate) popped into my head as well the moment I saw them: megadungeons on A1 scrolls.

I have experimented in the past with mapping dungeons on A3 paper because it allows you to easily include both map and key on the same page (the latter either situated in a box in a corner or as notes within/next to rooms), with space to breathe, cutting out the need to flip between pages or files. How much truer would this be of A1 paper? Especially if the whole thing (or at least an entire, sprawling level) could be made to fit on one sheet. If so, it would be a simple matter to carry round a megadungeon rolled up in a tube, whether as one sheet or several. Pop a sheet of house rules in with them, and you're ready to go. The advantage of the scroll is also that one does not need to unwind the whole thing - just the cross section where the action is happening. 

I would much prefer to run a dungeon from a scroll than from a book, if only for the vibe, man.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

The Forgotten Hobbit

I went with the family to visit my aged mother over Christmas. Having finished all the books I'd brought with me earlier than I expected, I was at a loss for bed-time reading, so I rooted through the shelves and discovered this old 1970s edition of The Hobbit:

You have to love that old school cover.

I probably last read The Hobbit about 7 or 8 years ago - enough time to forget lots of little details. As these came back to me, it gave me cause to reflect on the evolution of the fantasy genre; a lot of Tolkien's ideas have been picked up and run away with during the course of the last 50-70 years, but there are a number which simply haven't. Indeed, as you read The Hobbit now, you encounter many little throwaway lines that have had almost no impact on the development of the fantasy genre and which, if they had, may have altered its flavour considerably. For example:

Wicked dwarves allied with goblins. For some reason dwarves being the enemies of orcs and goblins has become a trope, but here on p. 58 of my edition we find: "[Goblins] did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everyone and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous; in some parts wicked dwarves had even made alliances with them." Although there are shades of Warhammer chaos dwarves and their alliance with hobgoblins, here.

Weapons which gain power when a particular foe is around. We're used to depictions of elvish weapons glowing to reveal the presence of orcs, and we're also used to weapons which eat souls or gain power from shedding blood, or whatever. But Glamdring gets sharper just because goblins are nearby. From p. 60 - "It burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave. It made no trouble whatever of cutting through the goblin-chains and setting all the prisoners free as quickly as possible."

Gollum wears trousers. Okay, so not exactly a trope, but I think everybody now has the image of Peter Jackson's Gollum in their heads when they now imagine the character. But he originally had pockets, and thus surely trousers. From p. 73 - "[Gollum] thought of all the things he kept in his own pockets: fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing..."

Giants. Even Tolkien himself seemed to forget that there were giants in Middle Earth once - they don't appear in The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion unless I am horribly mistaken. But they're there in The Hobbit. On p. 88 - "'I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant to block it up again,' said Gandalf [referring to a mountain pass through which goblins are coming], 'or soon there will be no getting over the mountains at all.'" They appear to be good giants as well. 

Animal Fantasy. On p. 115 - "Inside the hall it was now quite dark. Beorn clapped his hands, and in trotted four beautiful white ponies and several large long-bodied grey dogs. Beorn said something to them in a queer language like animal noises turned into talk. They went out again and soon came back carrying torches in their mouths, which they lit at the fire and stuck in low brackets on the pillars of the hall around the central hearth. The dogs could stand on their hind legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet." Later there are sheep serving dinner and ponies helping set the table.

Talking giant spiders. We're all used to giant spiders, but Tolkien's talk. Not for him the boring concept of 'Animal (1)' intelligence.  On p. 145 - "[T]hen in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves! 'It was a sharp struggle, but worth it,' said one. 'What nasty thick skins they have to be sure, but I'll wager there is good juice inside.'

Elves who like a piss-up. On p. 164 - "Then Bilbo heard the king's butler bidding the chief of the guards good night. 'Now come with me,' he said, 'and taste the new wine that has just come in. I shall be hard at work tonight clearing the cellars of the empty wood, so let us have a drink first to help the labour.'" They end up getting shitfaced and blacking out. These are not your father's elves, are they?

The tone of The Hobbit is different because it's for children, of course, but also because Tolkien's ideas clearly developed a lot in between its publication and writing The Fellowship of the Ring. Who knows what would have emerged if The Lord of the Rings had never been written and The Hobbit had remained the genre's ur-text? 

Saturday, 2 January 2021

An Old Friend for a New Year

This year, I intend to do some real work on the Fixed World. Probably released via a Patreon (or similar) model, with each release being a segment of the map, pre-written content, and tables for generating more - enough so that you could easily run an entire campaign with the material provided in each one.

Here is a work in progress world map, at a 50-mile per hex scale. Not finished, because as if the whole idea wasn't absurdly ambitious enough, I want ultimately to try to detail the seas and oceans as well. I also need to fiddle around with the position of things and add pack ice and so on - and, more importantly, the 'time zones'. 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Of Sparse and Dying Earths

There is a spectrum of sparseness for fantasy and SF worlds. 

On the left hand side is 'For a Breath I Tarry', the Zelazny short story in which an entire planet is populated by two robots. On the right hand side are the high fantasy worlds of D&D and modern commercial fantasy fiction, which are crowded and thronging with life. Some other examples off the top of my head, going roughly from left to right: Viriconium, Hyborian earth, Urth, Bas-Lag, Mystara.

An observation: as the genre has matured, its settings seem to have tended more towards the dense than the sparse. The big commercial fantasy worlds nowadays are often filled with peoples, cultures, complex societies and economies. (Think A Song of Ice and Fire - there is a lot going on in that world, isn't there? An awful lot of Sers and Houses and people being murdered in novel ways or shagging their sisters.) Those of long ago seem comparatively empty. (At times you almost feel as though Tolkien knows the names of literally everybody living in Middle Earth.) Is this perhaps to do with the influence of D&D and other fantasy RPGs, and the explosion of interest in world-building and monster creation which followed? Indeed, is there a 'structural bias' in D&D towards the dense setting, because of the assumption that there is a large pool of low-level murder hoboes roaming the land, and an infrastructure to support them? 

Another: not wanting to start a politics flame war, but is there a tendency for conservative writers to more readily embrace the sparse setting? A sparse setting is one which is in decline (Middle Earth, Lyonesse), or dying (Urth); a dense one is developing, optimistic, fresh. A sparse setting is one which a rugged individual can make his (or her) own; a dense one is one which leads more naturally to stories of intrigue, politicking, sociality. I've often thought that Jack Vance's old school libertarianism manifested itself most strongly in the geography of his settings, which are big, open, and often so empty of people that there is almost nothing to constrain the ambition or freedom of his heroes. 

A third: this may seem a banal point, but dense settings naturally lend themselves to nerdish pursuits and 'geeking out', because there is just so much more stuff to learn about, to memorise, to know. Middle Earth is perhaps an exception here, because its history is so detailed (and also because after the Peter Jackson films there was an explosion of spin-offs), but generally speaking older, sparser settings are easily summarised and understood, and neither require nor inspire much in the way of homework. 

I feel the attractions of both types of setting. I love the sheer exuberance of a Mystara or a Bas-Lag. But I feel the pull of the near-empty sword and sorcery world, in which every single NPC is larger than life, special, rare, dangerous. One does not need to restrict oneself to beer or wine for all eternity. 

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

The Best of 2020

Ok, let's do this. 

Best Blog: The age of the dinosaurs has ended, and the blogosphere is now roamed only by furtive ancestral mammals and scraggy feathered things that will one day approximate birds. Still, Age of Dusk promises the dawn of a new age of mighty beasts whose size may one day rival the titans of yore. This year was a good one for him.

Best Review: The aforementioned's review of Veins of the Earth, which manages to be both readable, detailed, fair, and constructive in critique. (Part I is here; there are two others.)

Best Blog Entry by Somebody Else: It might actually be this, although making it a recent one feels like cheating.

Best Entry of Mine: I have to be honest: this was not a vintage year for my blog. Looking back at the entries I wrote this year, I have the feeling that I was phoning it in half of the time. I'm sorry for that. I quite like this entry though, and this one.

Best RPG Product: The only game product I think I bought and actually read and used in 2020 was Ryuutama, so it wins by default, even though I found it disappointing.

Best SF, Fantasy or Horror Book Read: Jack Vance's The Palace of Love. I read all of the Demon Princes series this year; I liked this one best. Here is my Goodreads review (add me if you like):

There is something profound at work in this book, which like all of Vance's fiction is a deliciously sweet slice of pulp that hints at something much deeper. A meditation on love, identity, sex, power, insecurity, vanity, monomania, and meaning? It's all of those things, and the fact that you can never quite see the results of that meditation - just glimpse them from behind an opaque glass screen, like Falusche's face itself - makes them all the more important. (*What*, though, to those who have read the book, is the meaning of the druids and their tree?)
Best SF, Fantasy or Horror Viewing: Does 'The Inner Light' count? 

Best Gaming Experience: Without doubt it has to be my 'Riding A Giant Tadpole Over a Massive Waterfall and Falling Into a Plunge Pool Full of Giant Pikes' mini-game which I created for Ryuutama (I will put up the rules for this onto the blog one day). Sometimes something you create for next week's session really just pays off. 

Best Cancellation: It has to be the Adam Koebel thing, which even I heard about. I am not a fan of the concept of cancellation, but there is just something too precious about a self-righteous proponent of 'safety tools' in games live-streaming a session in which one of the PCs is sexually assaulted and the entire group quits in disgust. To quote GK Chesterton's introduction to Aesop's Fables: "[S]uperiority is always insolent...pride goes before a fall...and [there] is such a thing as being too clever by half. You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks of any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything."

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

The Allure of the Apocalypse

I've just finished a bit of light Christmas reading - John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Despite the intimidating title, it turns out to be an amusing, sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny read, but also rather blithe and superficial. Carey's thesis is simply stated. It is that the modernists (DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Jean Rhys, EM Forster, etc.), were almost all dreadful snobs who often entertained fantasies of genocide perpetrated against 'the masses' - and that Hitler's own such fantasies stemmed from a similar kind of snobbery. And, naturally, Nietzsche was to blame. The book is mostly a gleeful collection of quotes cherry-picked for evidence in support of this (deliberately) provocative idea. 

The book is vicious and lacking in generosity. Yes, undoubtedly many of the people Carey skewers were elitists and said silly things in the course of their lives (who hasn't?). But as this goes on, chapter after chapter, one increasingly begins to feel some sympathy for those, like Wells, Lawrence, or Eliot, who worried about the ecological devastation that would follow from overpopulation and economic development, and the corrosive effects of mass consumerism on the culture. Those worries were often expressed in sweeping and over-exaggerated (not to mention ridiculous and sometimes disgusting) ways, but it is hardly absurd to have had them at all. Moreover, I think there is something entirely normal, maybe even natural, about entertaining fantasies of being able to escape from 'the mass' and have the world to oneself. Who hasn't, at times, thought fleetingly about how great it would be if there were no, or very few, other people in the world? (Except perhaps a few attractive and promiscuous specimens of the sex of your choice.) Who hasn't occasionally in an idle moment been struck that it would be wondrous if one could experience, if only for an afternoon, a world after people?

There is nothing wrong with that thought - it doesn't make you an incipient Nazi or psychopath. It is the inevitable, occasional flight of fancy of an individual member of a social species living in conditions of hypersociality in which it can be difficult to feel as though one is important and distinct, combined with an undoubted yearning which each of us feels - some more than others - for connection with a natural world from which we are increasingly alienated. 

An apocalypse would be dreadful. But there are moments when it has its allure. I was struck by this thought earlier today while walking with a friend and fellow blogger on a local tidal island. Windswept, desolate, silent of traffic noise, it was easy to imagine the feeling of being alone in such a place in the aftermath of a war or plague. Just you and the grass, the beach, the sea, the golden sunlight streaming through the clouds onto the hills in the distance - and a few cormorants, oystercatchers and a stray heron minding their own business nearby. Bliss. No, I wouldn't like to live on Gamma World. But it might be nice to visit for a day.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Pathfinder and the Appeal of Crunch

In the comments on this post, Patrick Stuart asks:

Do you think Pathfinder is finally uncool enough that we can adopt it and do the pretentious version?
This was in a response to the suggestion that Pathfinder is struggling, 5th edition D&D having basically eaten its breakfast. 

I have no idea whether this is true or not. What I do know is that Pathfinder's 2nd edition, despite billing itself as being "easier to learn and faster to play", comes in a core rule book 640 pages long, so it really wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't exactly selling like hot cakes. Was this game ever going to appeal beyond the niche of disgruntled players of 3rd edition D&D still upset about 4th edition? It was, in essence, their OSR, so would one really expect it to be much more than a tiny corner of the market once Wizards of the Coast got its act together?

With all of that said, I do occasionally find myself vulnerable to the siren song of playing complicated and crunchy games. I think this is the wargamer in me. A detailed combat system like Cyberpunk 2020's makes tactics really matter in a way that in a faster and looser game they simply can't, and there is a lot of enjoyment to be squeezed out of even very simple fights when what happens is messy and difficult to resolve. You don't get many of those combat encounters you get in D&D (which are a feature of every campaign I've ever been involved in, as a player or DM) when it's late in the session or everybody is keen to move on from the fight and everything just descends into "Ok, I roll to hit...and miss...the orc rolls to hit...he hits...take 2hp damage...now I roll to hit..." When combat rules are gritty and complicated, that often serves in itself to make combat feel like it has high stakes. 

At the same time, though, the beauty of crunch is that it provides mechanical variety. In the end, there isn't really a great deal of difference between creatures in an OSR variant of D&D except at the aesthetic level. An orc is basically the same as a hobgoblin, an elf, a dwarf, a bandit, etc. There are, of course, ways to make them interesting, and we've been talking about that for well over a decade now in this neck of the woods. But the fact of the matter is, when monsters have lots of stats and abilities - when, in short, a game is crunchy - then the differences between them are readily apparent, and matter. This has its advantages. It elevates the stakes again; these hobgoblins may look like orcs, but they are not the same, and the differences might surprise you. 

I don't have the time or inclination to sit down and read a 640 page long RPG rule book and properly digest it. But if I did, I have a feeling I might in the end enjoy it. 

The Romance of Central Asia

When I was 18, I spent a summer in Kyrgyzstan working as a volunteer with street orphans. This sparked a romantic flame in my heart for Central Asia which, although dimmed by time, has never been extinguished. 

For a person from a small, wet, green and crowded island on the edge of a continent, there is something unspeakably exotic about the Eurasian landmass to begin with - the empty vastness of it is about as distant from one's geographical experience as it is possible to get without going under the sea, or to the South Pole. Everything about Britain is modest. Our highest mountains are really just big hills. Our biggest lakes are mere ponds. Our mightiest rivers would barely register as minor tributaries of an Amazon or a Mississippi or a Volga or a Nile. Our summers are not hot. Our winters are mild. 

Central Asia is the opposite. Never mind the scale of the mountains, the hugeness of the steppes, the lakes (Baikal, Balkash, Caspian) which dwarf entire countries. The sky itself is bigger there: a great blue gulf that hangs above you, distant and endless and coldly beautiful, under which your affairs can only feel as though they have the most trivial significance if any at all. It's no wonder the steppe peoples of long ago - and today, indeed - made it into their god. How could one not, when it is so manifestly and ineluctably there wherever you go? 

Finding oneself unmoored in this colossal ocean of land, one has the sense of entire societies, peoples, civilizations (Tocharia, Dayuan, Kwarezm, Massagetae, Alans, Xiongnu...) becoming lost in its emptiness, like flotsam borne away on the surface of the sea - slowly but inexorably growing ever distant from each other and all around them as the decades, centuries, millennia unfold. A feeling that human history is nothing more than the comings and goings of items borne on tidal currents washing from East to West and back again, a process with neither beginning nor end nor meaning in between. Scythians, Greeks, Sogdians, Mongols, Turks; there and back again, and the earth enduring under their hooves. This is the truth of it everywhere, of course, but it is only on the galling scale of the Eurasian landmass that one cannot escape it by losing oneself in the crowd, as we in Western Europe do.

This map above all excites me. The Eastern hemisphere in 200 AD. Who needs a fantasy setting when this lies before you? 

But these images manage to do it too:

Thursday, 17 December 2020

The State of OSR Adjacency

I am very positive and hopeful about the future of the OSR and those, like me, who are "adjacent" to it. (I hate the word "adjacent", by the way. Partly because of the daft way it's used, but mostly because of how it looks on the page. It's aesthetically nasty. "Eels" is another one, when the initial E is capitalised. It just looks wrong. But anyway.) It is true that blogs are not what they were and there is much less dialogue taking place between the big ones. And G+ has gone. But this is all to the good. For me, the disappearance of "community" and all the crap that went with it is a mercy. (Possibly it exists on Discord, but I never go there and am not really sure what it is.) We can now concentrate on playing and making things for games, and abandon gossip, drama, and social signalling. 

The OSR has won its war. D&D is now free from the clutches of any one company, 'gatekeeper' or owner and is, instead, a freely available and universal pastime like chess, knitting or squash. (Melan has already pointed this out.) This is no mean achievement. No, it doesn't matter a jot in the grand scheme of things. But it is a significant psychic victory in humanity's endless war against the forces of overbearing technocratic order and control. D&D is for anyone who wants it. It has become part of our common heritage.

The beauty of this is that, ironically (because undoubtedly the OSR is partly a market phenomenon and indeed in a sense created a market where there was none before), it means that D&D has become a space unmediated by the market. You don't need to buy anything to do it now. You never did, of course, not really, but now one can say it with a bit more conviction. It is something we can simply share in as human beings. On the level. Together. Me and you and whoever wants to join in. This is a good thing. Just as good is that if one wants to try to make a living at it one can do that too: that it allows one to take advantage of the very humane and beautiful impulse that underpins markets and ultimately capitalism - to trade a thing of value for something one values in return, and thus to make both parties better off from the exchange. That the OSR is both not about money but also about money at the same time is part of what will make it last.